Mountain fly anglers are a funny lot. Rather than trying to feed actual food items to the inhabitants of their local waters, they spend tedious hour after tedious hour attempting to delicately place a bundle of hair and thread and feathers in such a precise presentation that it fools a fish (with millions of years of evolution aiding its judgment) into thinking it’s a bug. “Why not just dig up a few crickets? We’d have supper by now,” my grandpappy would have said.
But these are the exact sorts of occasions that humans have long used a three-letter word to explain away: art. It doesn’t need to be the easiest or simplest or most effective method when it’s art.
And so, we take to the mountains, paintbrush and palette in hand, hoping that today’s the day we paint a masterpiece. Except the canvas hides under log jams and behind river rocks, and we must coax it into participating.
When the canvases are few and far between to begin with, the task laid before us can become overwhelmingly daunting.
Apache National Forest encompasses much of the White Mountains, a pine-covered oasis sandwiched between the dramatic red rock landscape that represents most of Arizona, and the seemingly endless, barren mesas of New Mexico. Where the high desert plains meet the mountains, unique waterways and fisheries spring to life in the middle of countless square miles of punishing desert. And in this place, isolated from all its relatives, lives an unlikely little critter.
The Apache trout only inhabits three sections of river on Earth, all found in eastern Arizona. Named after the people who originally took refuge from the harsh surrounding landscape here, it became Arizona’s state fish in 1986. It has thrived in these small, snowmelt-fed rivers for millennia, but recent challenges have pushed it to the brink of extinction.
The effects of the great wildfire of 2011 devastated both the humans and wildlife in this area, and despite living within fire’s greatest foe, the devastation didn’t spare the fish of this region. Couple that with invasive rainbow and brown trout hybridizing away its gene pool and overfishing by casual, uneducated anglers, and this little predator is in a world of trouble. The Apache trout was one of the first species of fish to be federally listed as endangered in 1969.
And as any self-respecting fly angler should be, I am a sucker for a good challenge and a glutton for punishment. When I heard about this elusive species, I just had to meet one.
The 16-hour drive to Apache country took my RV and me through a whole lot of nothing. Hours passed without seeing a tree taller than myself, and every moment without a flat tire felt like dodging certain death. Then, rising out of the horizon, a mountainous mirage began to appear.
As with all fishing trips, weather and climate conditions play a huge factor. As with all my fishing trips, both were abysmal when I arrived. After speaking to a local guide, the owner of The Lazy Trout fly shop, the guy in the meat department at the general store and anyone else that looked like they had caught a fish before, one suggestion dominated the conversations: go home and come back in a month.
Apparently, an unusually long and wet winter had led to an abundance of snow, which, after lingering atop Mount Baldy well into late May, was finally melting and swelling the rivers the Apache calls home. That’s right: I came to Arizona in the summer and found too much snow. Fly fishing is good about coming up with new and creative problems to throw at you.
High flows mean swift water, which wreaks havoc on a bundle of hair and thread and feathers while simultaneously making it hard for trout to see food coming. A lingering winter also postpones the bug hatches that serve up much of a trout’s diet and signals to them that it’s time to start feeding. In short, I had arrived to find inactive fish in damn-near unfishable water. And in case you have the attention span of a trout, my target was critically endangered on a good day.
But I wasn’t here on holiday. I was here filming a project for Arizona State Tourism and coming back in a month was not an option.
I’ve always thought that unique challenges require one of two things: overly creative solutions or a hard-headed, unreasonable refusal to give up.
I’ve never been very creative.
For days I hiked up and down the White Mountains, constantly guessing and second-guessing where logic and nature should place one of these fish for me to catch.
I started by hiking as far up and off the trails as I could go, thinking that getting above the casual anglers and weekend warriors would lead me to less pressured, more easily fooled fish. There I found snow on the ground, freezing water temps and raging current.
I then tried downstream, where the flows begin to slow, and the water begins to warm as the Arizona sun beats down on the shallow water. There I found kids and dogs frolicking in the river, spooking every fish for a hundred yards in either direction.
With nothing to show for my efforts after several days of fishing but sore feet and more mosquito bites than I could count, it was time to change the arena. I moved on from the headwaters where I was told my best shot at a wild Apache would be and headed down the mountain. But ease of access equates to more pressured waters, meaning the fish would be skeptical of my offerings.
Despite that potential challenge, I immediately began catching fish. Unfortunately, not the fish.
Brown trout were transported across the Atlantic and introduced into United States waters in the 1860’s, where they now thrive in cold water rivers and lakes from coast to coast. These shy but voracious predators found both my nymphs and dry flies too enticing to pass up, and by throwing a nymph suspended below a floating grasshopper pattern, fish began hitting the net with regularity. But alas, not one displayed the telltale green and gold with black spots that would signify my targeted quarry.
Hike, cast, hike, cast, catch the wrong species, hike, cast, rinse, repeat… ad nauseam.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Brown trout are a highly sought-after gamefish nationwide. The specimens in these wild, remote waters showcased gorgeous coloration and a bulldog-like attitude that made for an absolute blast on my Orvis 4-weight Superfine fiberglass rod. But when you have one specific goal on your mind, finding success outside of that target can feel like failure. Context is a bitch sometimes.
With twenty-four hours left of my ten-day stint in the White Mountains, hope was a distant memory. Clinging to excuses about the conditions and timing and rarity of this species, I refused to let myself get (too) discouraged. That morning while picking up a few new flies to try at the fly shop, the owner gave me one last idea that, quite frankly, sounded absurd. He told me of a spot right in town (‘town’ being a strong word for Greer, Arizona) that may yield what I had been searching for.
Now, when I say “he told me of a spot,” I don’t mean a 400-yard stretch of river. I mean one of those “turn left at the oak tree that looks like Jack Nicholson, walk down three car lengths, sneak past the boulder with a black spot in the shape of a clover and cast three feet above the willows overhanging the clump of Iris flowers” kinds of spots. It sounded too made up to be made up.
So, I parked at the Rendezvous Diner, threw back on my Sidewinder Bibs for the umpteenth time and hiked down to the Little Colorado River just a stone’s throw from the road. Not long after passing Jack Nicholson, I spotted the willows he described. During the first drift, I watched a trout dart out from under the overhang and swipe at my fly.
That was the first time I set the hook while technically dead since my heart stopped beating the instant I saw movement. But alas, after dozens of successful hookups on brown trout, I missed the bite.
That was the first time I knew exactly what it felt like to miss a wide-open layup with two seconds left in the NBA Finals while down one point. This was a day of many firsts.
Forty drifts through the same stretch later, and my despair had officially hit critical mass. I had no choice but to admit defeat and begin mumbling about a return trip that would probably never happen. The Apache trout would simply have to remain on my list forever.
On the way out, as I mused about the chances that the fish had simply gone extinct the day before my arrival, I spotted another bend in the narrow river, right by the road, that hosted similar overhanging willows. I walked right on by while giving it my best sneer. Ten paces later, after internally berating myself for being a whiner and a quitter, I turned around and loosened my flies for what I promised myself was the last time.
The take was as aggressive as the 80-pound yellowfin tuna I catch in Panama. The trout immediately sprung airborne. When I didn’t see a flash of vibrant colors, I dared to hope this was the miracle I had been working so hard for. When it slid into the net, I had no doubt. This was the elusive Apache trout, and a pretty good one at that.
As I cradled it in my hand for a quick photo, a sense of admiration and respect for this small creature that has endured against horribly stacked odds overwhelmed me. Natural disasters, invasive species and the ever-encroaching human presence continue to threaten this wild and native species, yet its stubbornness apparently even outmatches my own.
As it slithered through my fingers and back into the current, I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to pursue and interact with this special little fish, knowing that my grandchildren may never have the same opportunity.
I came to Arizona to promote this fishery, this species and this wild place. And while most fish conservation dollars come from anglers purchasing fishing licenses and tags, I am not naïve to the fact that these fish cannot take much more pressure despite heroic efforts from Arizona Fish & Game.
In the end, I decided that I have an opportunity to educate and emphasize the importance of treating pressured fish species with respect, and I will just have to hope that anglers who venture to this extraordinary part of the country in the future will understand the importance of protecting the legendary Apache trout.
In an unexpected plot twist, I caught a second Apache while trying to catch a rainbow trout for dinner later that day in a stretch of river that locals told me did not harbor the endangered species. While we aren’t 100% certain, a local fishing guide thinks this was a wild fish living in an area they were thought to have died out from years ago. There just may be hope for the Apache yet.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Robert Field and Brooks Beatty. Learn more about Arizona and plan your trip here.